Revisiting an old conversation: Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Art, and Historic Preservation
“The action imposed upon the Antique Han pot represents the destruction of conventional or established values, creating a work that is in turn both iconoclastic and regenerative, wile also recognizing that the significance of a cultural object is always subject to change.” – Sotheby’s Catelogue Note
The image, created in 1995 as one of Ai Weiwei’s early works that put him in hot water with the Chinese government can be jarring (no pun intended) to a professional archaeologist or heritage worker. If you have never seen this work before, it is worth consideration on several levels. First, I will review some of the intentions discussed by the artist, the interpretation of the art community, his relationship with archaeology, and finally, the larger portion of this post will be discussing the implications of his interactions with archaeology, and interpreting his interactions with the art and heritage communities.
1. The Artist
Ai Weiwei is known for his politically charged art, being oppositional at best, with the Chinese government, and visual simplicity. In 2006, Barbara Pollack of Artnews interviewed Ai as his work was beginning to become more popular in the US. It is noted that his work, while severely controversial in his home country, falls within an established art tradition in the US. While it is true his work has been pointed at and instigated by the Chinese government, it is less well-known that much of work is also influenced by his father, a famous Chinese poet who was incarcerated with his family until after Mao was no longer in power. Thus, due to the public suffering of his father and family, the Chinese government has been less inclined to come down hard on a public figure who suffered for the Communist party. While this allowed his work to continue beyond where someone else’s might have, his time in the US as an art student in New York in the 1980s also gave Ai a unique perspective in China: to be familiar with the art history and traditions in China and the US lent him a unique edge. To make ends meet after returning to China, he did “a lot of antiquing”. In this atmosphere is when he began experimenting in the desecration of antiques. China at this time was known for forgeries in the antiquing community, so it could be argued to be less of an issue than people make of it. The first piece was painting over a Han Dynasty Urn with a “Coca-Cola” logo during his time selling antiques. The commentary is plain, for sure, but was seriously critiqued by the antiquities and archaeological community in China and abroad. This critique built with the 1995 work of dropping a different Han urn in a three-part photograph series. This photo series, the subject of my discussion here, still brings a cringe to archaeologists and heritage workers to this day, 25 years later.
2. The art community of course, has had varying reactions. “Bold” is certainly at the core of them all, and depending on whether one fall in with modern art theory, or art history, one can more or less predict who landed in the circle of consternation and nervousness versus just placing him in line with other artists in line with Jeff Koons and Richard Prince. By and large however, the current discussions of his work focus on his spartan design ethic combined with the shock value. From London’s most recent arrival of Ai’s work in the form of mounted human remains to continued discovery of the Han Urn piece, his work pushes boundaries more and more outside of China.
3. As an archaeologist and lover of art, including modern art, I must admit to appreciating Ai Weiwei and his work with antiques, though it is inevitably accompanied by a knee-jerk cringe. Here is why:
Ai recognizes the relationship human societies have with the past, and specifically, THINGS from the past. These artifacts represent what people want them to; rarely, especially in the antiquities market and museum exhibits, do they represent anything close to the lived truth of said artifact. Artifacts, in the popular conception and aesthetic, ar symbolic. Archaeologists have a unique relationship with artifacts, in that we take in the large picture of a substantially complex array of context: temporal, spatial, relational, and preservational. Archaeology is more about the stories the artifacts and context have to tell than the artifacts themselves. For people in many societies, artifacts represent something. They can represent the “greatness” of the past and idolization of what “was”, or rather the glamorized past. It can represent ancestors, stories, legacies, legends, or gods. The meaning attributed to the artifacts are worth more than the artifact itself, however the artifact becomes embodied by our stories and attributions. Ai’s goal is to destroy the attributions in a concrete way by destroying the artifact. This idea holds true when discussing interpretations of the past. What was preserved? Destroyed? Just decomposed?
Historically, societies have destroyed symbols that are destructive to the ideals of the conquering society. This can be seen in the destruction of the Nazi architecture in Europe; it can be seen in the destruction of statues of Stalin and Lenin upon the fall of the Soviet Union. Why certain Pharohs faces were defaced. It is in the name of cultural memory. What do we want our citizens to gaze upon for inspiration? What is okay to idolize, and what meanings are attached to these objects (at the time of destruction or cultural interpretation in the past)? If something exists that is outside of our moral boundaries, it will be destroyed. This was also true with the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the many Roman sites in Libya, and other important sites destroyed in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring and many wars that have plagued the area (by both/all sides of the conflict). It is a shame to lose such tangible history for the people that can truly call it their legacy. However, we have to remember that saving all such important sites from destruction can erase the suffering and cultural erasure that the people these sites are ancestral to, have suffered. Yes, I am first to say that these sites are important culturally for restoring faith in self, family, community, and the world, and should be preserved. However, those who are not saved, those whom we miss and cannot get to, their destruction and physical absence hold meaning. The Bamiyan Buddhas are also a great example of this.
I am also first to say that protecting heritage sites that are not unique and represent a cultural and/or political treason against the ideals of the mainstream society should not be “saved” solely on the argument of heritage preservation (ie. they are old enough). Civil War “monuments” that were constructed and erected during the Jim Crow era are an example. These are not memorial pieces for the heroes and idols of the larger culture, but symbols of the oppression being recreated and reinforced in a post-slavery society. It is not only appropriate, but expected these statues would be removed if not destroyed if we are to uphold our moral standing as society that truly believes that “all men are created equal”. We have to remember that history and archaeology are represented not only by what has been preserved, but also what has been destroyed. Fragments of destroyed idols can represent the destruction, oppression, and even subjugation of a people that otherwise may have no other voice. Remembering that it is the victors who write history, and if we preserve it all, we may be silencing the extend of destruction, and suffering they have endured.
As an archaeologist and an active preservationist, we also have to remember we are living in a LIVING society, and allow (and be active) in our society’s ability to make decisions based on moral value. If we do not agree, we should take an active role in preserving them. If we do not win, it says something. Something important about our society.
– Written by Kirsten Lopez